After more than seven decades in the Egyptian Communist movement, Youssef Darwish’s hopes for socialism are as strong as ever. As a lawyer he represented trade unions during the great workers’ struggles of the 1940s. As a political organiser he worked tirelessly to maintain the communist movement’s independence during the 1950s and 1960s.
Now 94 years old, he is still an inspiration for a new generation of activists—his small flat in central Cairo is rarely empty of visitors bringing news of the latest demonstrations and strikes.
Darwish was born in 1910 to a poor family from Cairo’s Jewish community at a time of rising rebellion against the British, who had occupied the country since 1882.
Egypt exploded in rebellion in 1919. Strikes and mass demonstrations shook British rule. The British granted partial independence in 1922, but maintained control over essential government institutions and the Suez Canal, a vital shipping lane for the British Empire.
Darwish’s first introduction to socialist ideas came as he studied law in France in the 1930s. He read Marx and Engels avidly, and was inspired by the Russian revolution.
From the 1930s until the outbreak of World War Two communists, nationalists and a growing Muslim opposition struggled to depose the British-backed king and win real independence. On Darwish’s return to Egypt in 1934, he found a new generation of Marxists was emerging. However, it was not until the 1940s that the young intellectuals had an opportunity to win an audience of workers to socialist ideas.
The rise of independent trade unions and the growth of a militant student movement against the occupation set the scene for massive struggle as World War Two drew to a close.
“The student movement against the occupation organised huge demonstrations,” Darwish remembers. Workers from the industrial area of Shubra al-Khaima in Cairo, heart of the independent trade union movement, joined forces with the student protesters to call for an end to British rule.
“Having decided to join as a workers’ movement they organised very big protests, the most important of which was the demonstration from Cairo University during which the Abbas Bridge was opened,” he says.
Dozens of protestors were killed after the authorities opened the swing-bridge over the Nile, in an attempt to stop students and workers reaching the Royal Palace.
For many leading activists in the movement, the questions of national and social liberation were intertwined. Trade union leaders, including the leader of the giant textile workers union, founded the Workers’ Committee for National Liberation with Youssef Darwish in 1945. He says, “The committee’s programme talked about political and social issues. It was the first document to talk about nationalisation, including nationalisation of the Suez Canal and the banks.”
Although the driving force behind the workers’ and students’ movement was the struggle against imperialism, the fight for better wages and conditions was also crucial. “Workers at that time called for an automatic link between wages and prices, in addition to their demands for independence. I think this is why the workers’ movement displayed such resilience. “It didn’t just look at the national question, but also paid attention to people’s problems.”
Youssef Darwish acted as a lawyer for the local union branches, eventually representing 67 different unions ranging from textile workers to Greek hoteliers. In his spare time he threw himself into agitation in the Shubra al-Khaima district.
“Prices went up, but wages stayed the same. We discussed it and decided to step up our agitation around the issue of wages. We put out a leaflet with the following title: ‘Set up Strike Committees, Set up Strike Funds’, and we posted it to about 200 union branches.”
The leaflet had a big impact—77 strike committees and strike funds were set up shortly afterwards.
This careful organising set the scene for the general strike of 1946. In addition to the union officials there was also a network of rank and file shop stewards. “Workers thought that there had to be a system of direct democracy, so they elected representatives from among themselves. In every workshop there was a rep and they used to meet together.”
In 1946 Darwish’s small cell developed into a larger organisation, known as Workers Vanguard. Organising workers was always a priority for Darwish and his comrades. A year after the new organisation was founded, 47 percent of the members were drawn from the working class.
The great waves of strikes and demonstrations finally broke the old order. Along with other activists, Darwish was in prison when, in July 1952, news came through that the British-backed King Farouq had been overthrown by a group of young army officers.
“When the coup took place our position in prison was: ‘We support the expulsion of the king and we call on the coup-makers to bring in democracy to Egypt.’ We sent a telegram saying this to the men who made the coup.”
But the Free Officers and their leader, Gamal Abdul Nasser, were suspicious of the workers’ movement and saw the Communists as potential rivals. The army was sent in to put down a strike by textile workers in the Mediterranean port city of Alexandria and workers were hanged after a sham trial.
When Britain, France and Israel invaded Egypt after Nasser nationalised the Suez Canal in 1956 the Communists rushed to support the resistance. The Suez crisis marked the end of British rule and the rise of Arab nationalism across the region.
But, despite the unity in the face of imperialism, divisions between the nationalists and Communists led to a period of repression and for Darwish a return to prison. When the authorities tried to close down his office in 1957, they met with stiff resistance. “The workers themselves gathered 8,000 signatures on a petition to Nasser saying, ‘This is our office and it must be opened.’ And 270 lawyers also signed up to the campaign. They opened up the office again after a week.”
At the same time Darwish and some of his oldest comrades faced another attack, this time from within the Communist movement. His Jewish origins were made an excuse to force him and other leading members of Workers Vanguard out of Central Committee of the newly formed Egyptian Communist Party. That was despite his passionate anti-Zionism and the fact he had abandoned the Jewish faith.
Although only a small minority within the Communist movement succumbed to this racism, Darwish and his colleagues agreed to step down for the sake of unity.
Then in 1965 the Egyptian Communist Party decided to dissolve its own organisation—a move opposed by Darwish. After a period in exile in Algeria he finally returned to Egypt in 1986.
The collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 left him unshaken in his beliefs. “Saying, ‘That’s all in the past, it doesn’t matter now’ is just empty talk.
“Socialism is built on a firm scientific and historical basis. Human beings do have a tendency to develop a culture based on justice and brotherhood.”
The failure of the Soviet Union should not deter a new generation of socialists, he argues. “One objective reason why the Soviet Union wasn’t socialist is because the country wasn’t industrialised.
“Marx always argued that Communism could only succeed in an industrialised country, such as France, Germany or England. That was why Lenin rejected the idea that you could build socialism in one country.”
Egypt, he believes, does not have a developed enough economy to sustain a socialist society on its own. “That doesn’t mean that socialism isn’t coming. Socialism is coming, but it has to be a solution for the whole world.”
This is an edited version of an article in the Egyptian socialist magazine Awraq Ishtirakia. Additional reporting Anne Ashford.